Why do people have affairs? When you interact with people long enough, you may find that people don’t always keep their word. That’s not a pessimistic view of the world, but a fact that breaks in on our relationships and reality every so often. This fact becomes more than a rude awakening when it intrudes on an intimate relationship like a marriage.
We don’t pick our life partners lightly, nor do we make promises of lifelong fidelity on a whim. In entering a marriage, the two people are committing themselves to be faithful to one another, to have each other’s backs, and put the other person first. So, when an affair happens, it is a betrayal like no other because of the deeply intimate nature of it all.
Affairs can take several forms. An affair may be physical, involving sex with another person. There can also be emotional affairs that do not involve physical contact, though emotional affairs can come quite close to it, as people may exchange explicit photographs, text, voice, and video messages with one another. Whatever the nature of the affair, if it crosses boundaries that you’ve set in your relationship, that’s problematic. Consulting a Christian Counselor can provide guidance in such situations.
Most people question why their partner had the affair in the first place. This can be even more confusing in situations where the relationship was rich and deep, both parties were fulfilled, and the partner who strayed doesn’t know why they cheated because they were happy in their relationship.
It used to be, and to some extent, it still is, the popular thinking that people have affairs because they are unhappy. While that’s certainly true in many cases, that’s not the only reason people have affairs, and so no wonder people are at a loss and struggle to make sense of things when they have an affair despite there being no serious problems in their marriage.
Why do people have affairs?
Why do people have affairs? Below are some of the reasons, adapted from and expounded upon by the work of Emily Brown, LCSW, in her novel, “Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment” (2001).
Looking for adventure and self-discovery or the split-self affair.
One of the foremost relationship therapists in the U.S. is Esther Perel, and she’s made the point that one reason people have affairs is to find adventure and discover themselves. Emily Brown, LCSW, describes this as the “Split-Self Affair.”
The affair may have nothing to do with their partner, meaning that there isn’t anything lacking in their partner that they are trying to find elsewhere. The affair is “an attempt to experience the emotional self that has been denied for a lifetime in the service of doing things right” (p. 40).
It may have more to do with wanting to explore new aspects of themselves or rediscover something about themselves that they may feel they’ve lost somewhere along the way. Some people may feel like they’ve lived on the straight and narrow path their whole life, and an affair allows them to reimagine themselves.
While this may seem like it’s indirectly blaming the jilted spouse, it’s pointing to the ennui and restlessness within themselves. While the freshness and danger of the affair may make them feel alive and renewed, the affair often does not become the new reality of a cheating spouse’s life because the utopian ideal it provides cannot be lived in as an ongoing relationship.
The uncertainty and elusiveness that makes an affair exciting and lends it mystique makes a real relationship like a marriage unstable and unsustainable.
The words of St. Augustine written more than 1,500 years ago, that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you” remind us of our perpetual restlessness and the quest to find rest and our true selves where they won’t be found.
People may try to fill a void or meet a crisis in identity by having an affair so that they can explore new parts of their identity. Though it may seem satisfying for a while, it isn’t sustainable in the long-term, and it leaves heartache and damage in its wake.
Chasing an old path or the other half of the split-self affair.
Another reason people have affairs, which is like the pursuit of self-discovery, is that people often want to follow the path not taken. With social media and the ability to catch up with old flames, it’s easy to become wistful about what once was and what could have been.
From there, it’s easy for one to begin wondering what might still be. Affairs can become ways of picking up where one left off with an old partner. This may be out of sheer curiosity and remembrance of good times, or it can be an escape from their present relationship and an effort to avoid a daily reality.
Pursuing the forbidden fruit or the affair of the sexual addict.
The Bible often talks about the allure of forbidden things. “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious! But little do they know that the dead are there, that her [folly’s] guests are deep in the realm of the dead,” reads Proverbs 9:17-18.
Sometimes the sense of danger, of adventure, of doing something that you shouldn’t be doing can be enticing. The fact that something is forbidden seems to increase its attraction.
The clandestine meetings, the secretive texts, stolen kisses, etc. all lend an intoxicating power to the affair, generating even more desire for the illicit relationship. There is something within us as sinful human beings that delights in crossing lines and breaking rules. We know we shouldn’t, but we do it anyway.
When opportunity knocks or the exit affair.
At other times, affairs happen because of nothing more complicated other than the simple fact that an opportunity presented itself. If one spouse is out of town traveling for work or another reason, the absence provides an opportunity for an affair. If the opportunity to have an affair with minor risk of being caught arises, some spouses will take it.
Opportunity, by itself, isn’t a reason people normally have affairs. Typically, when an opportunity to have an affair presents itself to a spouse who is feeling bored or trapped in the relationship, or if they are going through an identity crisis and are feeling unappreciated, they may take the opportunity.
This is especially so if they are having thoughts of wanting out of the current relationship, but are having difficulty deciding or expressing their ambivalence to their spouse. The Exit Affair provides a cheating spouse with a perfect opportunity to pull the plug on a dying relationship.
Unmet needs, meeting needs and affairs in the service of avoiding conflict or avoiding intimacy.
An affair often compensates for a lack of something in the current or primary relationship, or it can happen in anticipation of an exit from it, as noted above, and the person they have an affair with helps them transition out of the relationship.
Among other things, an affair thus functions as a way of meeting a need or fulfilling an unmet need, such as not getting enough attention, or perhaps jealousy over a new baby, for instance, or feeling unresolved frustration in the marriage, due to a lack of intimacy. for example, or as a means of avoiding conflict with a spouse.
Affairs can also happen for a whole host of other reasons, including the cheating spouse simply not valuing monogamy. Or it may be that they do not care about the consequences of their infidelity and lack empathy for the pain their actions cause. A lack of empathy, for example, that commonly exists in the personality of a narcissist, may play a role in some affairs.
In other situations, there may be issues that may affect one’s ability to maintain committed relationships, such as childhood traumas and experiences that haven’t been addressed or resolved. Issues such as unaddressed childhood physical and sexual abuse, childhood neglect or exposure to infidelity, such as by a parent who cheated, may all be risk factors in a person having an affair.
Lord knows there is no such thing as a perfect relationship, and while every relationship has problems, not every problematic relationship will result in an affair. Affairs generally happen due to an avoidance of or unresolved issues in the current, primary relationship. However, this explanation for affairs lacks full explanatory power.
There is always more going on beneath the surface when people have affairs, and while the affair is not always rooted in a problem in the current, primary relationship, or an unmet need that the cheating spouse was trying to fill elsewhere because it was unsatisfied at home, the path of destruction that is left in its wake is both unmistakable and undeniable, like a ripple effect with never ending consequence.
If infidelity has struck your relationship, it is wise to seek the help of a relationship expert in order to explore the dynamics of your current relationship and unearth the reasons behind the affair.
An affair is a devastating betrayal, and the straying spouse needs to take full responsibility for their actions, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your marriage. It may be a long road, but if a couple is willing and able to, addressing the infidelity and its root causes with the help of a trained and professional Christian Marriage Counselor may help a couple draw closer to one another and strengthen the bonds and roots of their relationship.
Brown, Emily M. Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment, Second Edition, Philadelphia, PA: Brunner-Routledge, 2001.
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